MTV Spot Celebrates Everyday Heroes
“My ears just started ringing. It was really frightening, and I felt very alone,” the man says in the beginning of the “Thank Your Hero” public service announcement. Created by the LOGO channel, it’s now available online.
In the last issue of Camp, we introduced readers to Quiet Heroes, a riveting documentary about physician Kristen Ries and her partner, nurse Maggie Snyder, two pioneers in the fight against HIV and AIDS back in the epidemic’s early days.
Now MTV, the parent company of LOGO TV, has expanded on the film’s theme of selfless bravery, making this PSA that highlights other modern-day heroes. After all, remembering our storied past is one thing, but being aware of our collective present is quite another.
As we mark World AIDS Day in December, new HIV/AIDS cases are rising both domestically and globally. This PSA allows the legacy of the documentary to persevere and grow, encouraging anyone to become a hero to those facing HIV/AIDS.
The three-minute PSA begins with several people expressing how they felt when they discovered that their blood test showed they were HIV-positive.
“I thought, what am I supposed to do now? Who’s gonna want me?” a woman asks. A young man interjects: “It felt like a death of dreams or aspirations.”
The five people featured have a wide variety of backgrounds, representing some of the demographics that have been most significantly affected by the nationwide upsurge in infections. Four are men, one a woman, several are African American, one is a gay Caucasian male, another a gay Latino male. All are HIV-positive. Each candidly speaks out against the stigma that people living with HIV still face today. On camera, they thank personal heroes in their lives for helping them through difficult moments. Even better is how, unbeknownst to those speaking, their heroes are hidden on-set just out of sight, each listening to the beautiful, warm and heartfelt thanks.
Most of those profiled say they were not previously educated regarding the disease. The woman thanks her best friend for, above everything else, “always believing in me.” An African American man describes how for three years, he kept his diagnosis a secret. Another man admits: “It felt that when I became positive, I was a little less lovable.”
Then there’s the burly bear of a man who recalls how the two women he’s thanking happened upon him at “a real low point in my life, and they saw something in me. … They built me up, and then once I was able to be confident again, they gave me a job! They’re ‘She-roes’--and I am so grateful to have them in my life!”
A Latino man says that he needed to be told that he was going to be all right “and that I was going to find the right doctor” – and that’s just what his friend did for him. Lastly, a man thanks his hero – the first person he reached out to upon hearing his diagnosis. “He taught me not to allow myself or others to attach shame to who I was,” he says.
Interspersed are reaction shots of the people they’re thanking — just out of sight, but listening intently. When the hidden heroes are revealed, laughter and smiles are interspersed with tears. This is potent and moving stuff.
Two of the driving forces behind both the PSA and the Quiet Heroes film are Tajamika “Taj” Paxton and Mathew Lasky. Paxton, the head of Logo Documentary Films, was an executive producer on Quiet Heroes, and she came up with the idea of the PSA. Lasky, in turn, ran with it, gathering participants, being on-set throughout the filming, and then overseeing the editing.
“We’re thrilled that the documentary has laid the groundwork for the message we’re hoping to get across in the PSA,” Lasky says. “Apart from that message being super important, we wanted to connect the documentary with what was happening in the modern-day HIV and AIDS epidemic and reach a younger audience with that understanding. We strove to learn from our history, but then wanted to pin it more toward what’s occurring now.”
Paxton concurs: “There are many of us at the network who are cognizant that our history is very complex and layered — and there’s still more to tell. So to find such a story that does that is absolutely vital. And having a partner like Mathew for this project means that it’s going to have a certain reach and resonance, markedly for those folks who may not be aware that they’ve been a hero, whether by having had an impact on someone’s life or having had their life impacted by HIV.”
Lasky said that they wanted to avoid any focus on fear in the PSA.
“So many HIV/AIDS-related PSAs focus on fear, so it’s fear that’s the driver to promote testing,” he said. “Worse, it seems that a lot of media is hyper-focused on that prevention aspect, which kind of leaves out the experiences of those who are living with HIV and AIDS.”
Even with the advent of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PreP) as a preventive treatment, Lasky notes, so many people living with HIV and AIDS are still subjected to an intense stigma.
“Instead of leaning on that standard of ‘it’s important to get tested,’ we wanted to find people who were willing, able, and open to talking about their stories as survivors—living and even thriving with it,” he says.
Paxton says: “We’re a world now where figures point to there being something like a million people living with HIV and AIDS, and frankly, so much about that is thanks to testing. But those stats also indicate that [more than] 80 percent of the people know they are living [with it] – so where is that story? This is a segment of people that are not being represented, and their stories are not being told. … Fortunately, we do have people who are living with it 20, 30 years, so now let’s no longer exclude them from our narrative!”
Lasky stresses that it’s equally important to reach younger members of the national and global LGBT community – those who didn’t experience or don’t remember the dark days when AIDS was rapidly claiming lives.
Among Latino gay and bisexual males ages 13-24, new cases of HIV increased 19 percent from 2011 to 2015, CDC statistics indicate.
“It clearly is not just something that’s going away. Speaking from the perspective of building a campaign on TV –one that’s going to successfully reach a younger audience – I think that those … who didn’t live through the ’80s too often feel that AIDS is something that’s distant from their realities of living in today’s LGBT community, especially as more time passes. It then becomes more important than ever to tell those stories, exactly because we need to remind this whole new generation that’s coming up as LGBTQ that these are still the facts.”
To find people willing to share their stories, struggles and heroes on camera, Lasky said, they reached out to organizations in the New York City area who are leading the way in terms of HIV and AIDS and in advocacy.
“They were able to help us find people with really amazing stories who were open about their status, willing to talk about it on camera, and wanted to be a part of this entire project,” he said.
The woman living with HIV in the public service announcement says: “You’ve gotta remind yourself that before I had this virus, I had a life.” She says that five years ago, she believed being that HIV-positive automatically meant that pregnancy and motherhood were out of the question for her. But thanks to medical breakthroughs, she can experience these with no worries of infecting her unborn child.
“I’ve been married five years. My husband is HIV-negative still to this day,” she says.
“Life goes on – and it gets better, and it becomes amazing … and you learn how to triumph over this,” another man says earnestly. A young man declares that he can now actually plan – and have hopes for – the future.
He says that since his diagnosis, he has started reaching out to others who have been recently diagnosed – those who are in the same uncertain position that he was once in. “I now have a whole network of folks who I call ‘my kids,’” he says of those whom he mentors as they face the disease.
“Obviously, the only way to know your HIV status is to get tested,” Lasky professes ultimately, “and from a personal standpoint, I emphatically think it’s very important, as is staying vigilant about your status – and if you’re already positive, staying current on knowing your T-cell count.”
Paxton says that she hopes that both the film and the PSA help “people realize that change – effectively, with care and compassion – is always the act of a very small few. So if you feel compelled in any areas— not just HIV or AIDS, but in any area that matters to you, choose to be the one who rolls up your sleeves and jumps in. Don’t wait. Be of service wherever you are, right where you are.”
In the documentary, Lasky recalls, many patients talk about how important a simple hug or a touch was, especially when most people were afraid to touch them, and how powerful it was in their healing process.
“I hope the PSA influences people to consider this particularly,” he says, “and that it stimulates them to reach out to someone who needs help, even if it’s just needing to talk to someone. And for those who are going through something like their own diagnosis of HIV or AIDS, I hope it makes them comprehend how important friends and family and the people who are there for them truly are.”
The “Thank Your Hero” PSA can be found at https://goo.gl/1xcd3P or https://goo.gl/AwPqxW. To find out how to support those living with HIV/AIDS, the producers have set up an informational website at http://hero.mtv.com/.
Paxton concluded: “We are fortunate to live in a time where this is not the automatic death sentence that it once was. More than that, accept that everything takes courage, and if you have the courage to get the answer and that answer happens to be ‘positive,’ then in facing it, may you too, find heroes among you.”